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Joey McKneely: The man behind the dance in the touring 'West Side Story' production

By JULIA HATMAKER, The Patriot-News

“West Side Story” is a triple threat of a production. The show, which is currently celebrating its 50th anniversary, is renowned for its story, its music and its dancing — the three key areas for any musical theater show. Each has become a classic in its own right.

So changing any part of the show does not come easy.

It was a challenge tasked to choreographer Joey McKneely during the 2009 Broadway revival headed by Arthur Laurents (who wrote the book for the original version).

Laurents wanted to update “West Side Story” and make it more relevant and accessible to modern audiences. The story, the music, the dancing — those three tenements that made the original a classic — felt dated. A revamp was in order. The man tasked with tweaking the dance was McNeely.

McNeely was familiar with “West Side Story,” having worked on various productions of the show as choreographer and director. He had even worked alongside Jerome Robbins, the original choreographer of the musical, in “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway.” In that show he danced several numbers from “West Side Story” under Robbins’ eye.

Currently in France working on another version of “West Side Story,” McNeely spared a few moments to talk about what it was like working with Robbins, how he adjusted the classic “West Side Story” moves and why he keeps coming back to the play over and over again.


What was it like working with Jerome Robbins?

“I was really young, only about 19 or 20 at the time. For me it wasn’t so much working with Jerry as it was doing his choreography. It was really just experiencing the power of his expertise, of his choreography between the character and motion and the challenging aspect of it physically.”

How do you even begin to choreograph “West Side Story?”

“What I always do is go back to how it felt to do the choreography, to actually embody the emotion. I always go to that first and it has never steered me wrong, because the emotional memory can be quite strong...

At the end of the day they’re not really my moves, there’s Jerry Robbins moves. I really just adjusted the choreography, I didn’t really change it.

If someone from the original 1957 version saw this choreography, they’d say ‘You have changed things.’ But to me that’s the evolution of the choreography from 50 years. I’ve been as faithful as I know it to be.”

How do you walk the fine line between adjusting and changing the original choreography?

“Well the challenge has always been to try and respect Arthur Laurents’ wishes and also respecting the integrity of the original choreography. That has always been the challenge with this production. And then, seeing how I can adjust the choreography in a Robbins vocabulary and not in a McNeely vocabulary. Like, I’ll pull from his vast resources of steps from the show and then I’ll be like, ‘If I adjust this arm here or delay this entrance here — am I really changing it?’ And the answer is no.”

Why do you think “West Side Story” is so popular?

“I think it’s classic. Why do people continue to go to a Verdi opera or all the great operas? This, [‘West Side Story,’] is really a great masterpiece of musical theater.

“The music is just glorious. And because of the lyrics of Stephen Sondheim it’s really become a part of the American vernacular.

“I think the movie kind of touched a whole baby boomer generation and spoke to the essence of being a teenager and getting into trouble and also being a teenager and falling in love for the first time. I think between those themes, the music and the spectacular choreography it really is a perennial.”

What’s the biggest challenge you faced in choreographing the show?

“I think the biggest challenges in this particularly cast is we had very strong actors and dancers so a song could have stronger actors than dancers and vice versa.

So the level of choreography has really differed because the level of each dancer’s technique really differs. The audience never sees the A dancer from the B dancer, they should be always mesmerized by the quality of the dancing.”

How do you blend in the dancers, then? Is there a certain step a B dancer can do that makes them look like an A dancer?

“It’s not a particular step, it’s how you approach a dancer and how you train them and in the positions you put them in. The rehearsal process is really a training ground. Part of it really is building up confidence in the dancers and teaching them how to think about being.

Actors who are not dancers are not necessarily thinking about their foot or thinking about their hands. They think they’re doing the moves, but they’re thinking of an emotional place. As dancers we think about a lot more things.”

I read about how you had the Jets clench their fists when they do the ballet ‘sailing step’...

“It was just able to harden up the edge of the step. So that it didn’t look as pretty because these were gang members. So that was particularly a step that Arthur [Laurents] didn’t care for as much. There was no way I was going to attempt to come up with a brand new step. It was like ‘How can I manipulate this to the eye so I can show Arthur it’s true to his intent of being violent and gang worthy, and still within the bounds of Jerome Robbins?’”

What number was the biggest challenge for you?

I would have to say on Broadway, [the song] was ‘America.’...

The Anita on Broadway was more of an actress, she was never a trained dancer. So in this regard I had to adjust some of the choreography that wasn’t quite up to her expertise as a dancing. But I was able to train her to be able to do moves that worked for her.

But we have a different Anita here in the tour so I was able to restore a lot of the original choreography back.

I guess the other one, the biggest challenge was really the ones that I did not adjust: ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’, ‘Anita’s Taunt’ in the second act. And ‘Jet Song.’

Those three numbers, the original choreography was removed and they were staged. ‘Krupke’ and ‘Anita’s Taunt’ were treated much more like scenes and the director staged them. So the biggest challenge was taking a step back and allowing those numbers to be restaged in a whole new way that I wasn’t a part of.”

What would you say to people who haven’t made up their minds on whether to see “West Side Story” or not?

“This is a really good production. Those who have seen ‘West Side Story’ before — they will see a different interpretation of ‘West Side’ that is coming from an acting perspective first as opposed to a dancing perspective first. Just in terms of its history that’s a fascinating ...

Secondly for those who have not seen ‘West Side’ —come discover the raw emotional story of love against the odds told in a very contemporary manner. I think it’s the greatest musical ever to be staged. One owes it to oneself to come experience it.”

IF YOU GO: "West Side Story," various times March 20-25 at Hershey Theatre, 15 E. Caracas Ave., Hershey. $85, $80, $75, $70, $65, $25.; 717-534-3405.
Tags: 2009 broadway revival, 2010 national tour, interviews, jerome robbins, joey mckneely
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